Some consider advertising a trick to be learnt. The more charitable would allow that at its best it attains the level of a craft. There’s certainly an art to it – but it’s not an art form and any number of self-regarding award ceremonies won’t change that. Advertising gathers the superficialities of other mediums like a cultural magpie revelling in incestuous references but rarely if ever getting to the essence.
The recent trend for faux poetry has fuelled a less than virtuous circle that is self-referential in the extreme and set on a downward quality spiral. For three years advertising has been breaking out in bad poetry in quantities to rival the wildly pretentious visuals of car and perfume ads. Bad poetry begets more bad poetry begets more bad poetry like some biblical curse. None of it moves like the real thing (no pun intended). How could it when its sole intention is to get you off the couch to buy yet another ‘essential’ of modern life?
The impetus has been broad and equally varied in quality – often allied to music that is thoughtful, lyrical, uplifting or just plain melancholy: from Santander’s slight exercise in word association for the 123 Account; to the Madness-inspired dull drone that was Virgin Media’s Our House campaign to the rhyming couplets intoned by Lenny Henry on Premier Inn’s A Good Night’s Sleep Guaranteed. Among the pioneers of this particular poetic push: Cathedral City’s Slice of Britain cabbie – bearable because the late great Pete Postlethwaite could recite anything and enjoy some frisson of meaning – and the biggest serial offenders Mcdonald’s and their interminable customer character lists as they play fast (with food) and loose (with poetry): their tortuous tautology grating worse than three-year old cheddar.
This summer has seen the latest (poetry) Olympic instalments from the big burger with its We Are All Making the Games ad and The Sun’s peripatetic Get Involved campaign that has also seen fit to use the ever-changing visual backdrop style familiar to comedy fans of a certain era: most memorable from Alexei Sayle and The Fast Show.
As a lover of language it’s been great to see comparatively verbose ads and an alternative to conveying a commercial message in a brief strapline. Unfortunately too many have missed the mark by embracing the Ernie Wise school of writing. Okay; they’re not pretentious and self-conscious sixth-form stanzas – unless you count some of the clunky construction as contributory. Thankfully there’s no place for awkward pleasure in outlandish words and dictionaries swallowed when clear and wide communication is the thing.
However, it’s no surprise that the universally-lauded Guinness – Good Things Come to Those Who Wait – Surfer ad from 1998 had at its core the use of powerful words that emulated the inspiration of original prose from Melville and Joyce.
Perhaps there should be more emphasis on units dedicated to great words in the same way that popular music is relentlessly raided for soundtrack? If so – would it all inevitably drift into horrible pastiche as one idea becomes stale on the universal creative bandwagon?
What is in no doubt is that an accessible poetic style is simply another part of brand manipulation and the constant inveigling of products into our lives. The positioning of these brands as your new ‘bestest’ mate; as much a valued part of your daily habits – and therefore invoking the same glow and fuzzy connotations – as kissing the kids goodnight; stroking the cat; going to visit mum or a good night out with friends conveys a relentless process. Succeeding in attempts to place the product at the epicentre of people’s lives – the friendly brand that is there at all times; second nature, warmth by association and object of trust – that is the Holy Grail: the chapter and verse of every marketing executive.
To achieve this value-added, everyday life personified approach there is this shameless getting down with the people and the appeal to the ‘heroism’ of the day-to-day. The concept comes from a long tradition: a cultural form honed by the likes of the Crown and GPO film units of the 1930s and the words predominantly of writers such as W.H. Auden and J.B.Priestley.
They are a cliché now in more self-aware times precisely because of their style and ambition: both political and culturally. Night Mail’s clarion call to the nation; its defining influence is nonetheless like a railway track – albeit a slow branch line – to these ‘poetic’ ads of the present. Night Mail and its associates are the ultimate all in it together examples of popular expression. What is apparent is that they did this quiet nobility thing so much better in an era of a collective sense – a world of big isms – rather than the modern consumer society where greed is writ larger than J-Lo’s booty and celebrity has become the ultimate driving force.
The anachronism is that this derivative approach is coming from multi-nationals whose attitudes to said collectivism amongst their staff through shifting production practices and attempts at relocation to cheaper means is equally dubious. The vague hint of collectivism is doubly ironic as advertising defines, or rather tries to achieve group behaviour, contradictorily through expressions of individualistic consumption.
There is also the issue of a stylistic awkwardness that sees poetry written by copywriters. People who write copy can’t necessarily ‘write’ per se: it’s not their raison d’être – nor in their defence – their ambition, or more importantly their function in a commercial world limited by the daily conflict with client, agency culture and budget. Also never underestimate the power of hegemony; of dominant ideas – much as consumer’s avaricious demands are stirred by new products so clients want a shiny new advert just like the one from their competitors over there. It’s a difficult process to engage a true creative vision to connect beyond conventions, existing constrictions and commerciality.
So – without apologies to McDonalds – here’s an ode to
The corporate excusers,
The poor language users.
These engineers of cardboard,
Where litter’s the last word;
The bandwagon jumpers,
The get-us-out of the slumpers.
The post-pub enthusers,
Mere zeitgeist diffusers;
The cold grease of commerce,
Not wanting the obverse.
The great taste in a bun,
Don’t like? You’re no fun;
It’s our duty to consume,
Only way to relieve the gloom.
Any more I’ll make it worse,
Er; time to be economic with this verse…